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Playhouse’s The Gospel at Colonus; New Moon’s The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later

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I remember being so intimidated by Gospel at Colonus' co-creator Lee Breuer. The relentlessly experimental director and playwright conducted his improv workshop like a drill sergeant, barking out the names of famous painters and sculptors from the sidelines. He'd say, "El Greco," and we'd adjust our improvs to reflect the painter's stylistic flourishes. Then, as the room transformed into a colorful passion play, he'd change the scene to something by Goya or Bosch or Diego Rivera. And we, his students, would all change our missions accordingly. This was never a test of our acting or improv skills, of course. It was a cultural literacy exam. And, although I didn't fully understand it at the time, Breuer wasn't especially interested in good acting, in the conventional sense. He was looking for translators.

Playhouse on the Square's explosive production of The Gospel at Colonus may seem like a clever (if culturally sketchy) adaptation of the least-studied play from Sophocles' Oedipus cycle. More accurately, it's a translation aiming to reclaim the ecstatic nature of early theater and root out the meaning of things that are difficult to convey with words. Using a range of classic gospel styles and full-throated pulpit storytelling, The Gospel at Colonus invites audiences to participate in a blind king's transformation from accursed sinner to acclaimed hero in his final hours. It's easy to mistake this for a comparative exercise, mingling Greek and Christian myth. It is simpler than that. It's the appropriation of a script we all know (church), in the service of a script we don't know, because A) theater's meaning has changed and B) Oedipus at Colonus is eclipsed by Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Literate congregants may also recognize allusions to Samuel Beckett's Endgame folded into a stew that is vibrantly existential.

Playhouse director Tony Horne knows how to stage a no-holds-barred musical. To that end, The Gospel at Colonus is an exercise in both abandon and restraint. Dance is minimal but choreographer Emma Crystal uses it to generate and amplify tension in ways we don't normally associate with Broadway. Kathy Haaga's epically scaled set stops time, dropping the audience in the middle of a classical ruin, as ancient as it is postapocalyptic. It's a space built for poetry and magic and with the help of music director Julian T. Jones, the cast delivers.

Curtis C. Jackson brings a James Brown-like pleading to old Oedipus. He's answered in kind by his sister/daughters Antigone and Ismene, gorgeously sung by Claire Kolheim and Rainey Harris. The show belongs to the chorus and when it's rocking, this chorus can absolutely take you to church.

Ten years after Matthew Shepard's death, the Tectonic Theater Project — a New York-based theater company best known for creating a docudrama called The Laramie Project — returned to the scene of the crime to re-interview primary sources and take the town's temperature. From those interviews they created The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. This epilogue, currently on stage at the Evergreen Theatre, explores a phenomenon we've come to describe as "trutherism," and Laramie's need, as a community, to define itself as something other than the homophobic place where Shepard was killed.

In 2004 ABC's 20/20 revisited the slaying. The show suggested that both the media and the court had gotten Shepard's murder all wrong. Shepard's death was recast as a robbery and drug binge gone bad. Ten Years Later plays out as a deliberate refutation of 20/20's shaky revisionism. It shows that nothing changes the reasoning behind the killer's victim choice and brutality.

There's not one standout performance in the New Moon Theatre Company's Ten Years Later. It's a show about teamwork. This creative team, assembled by director Gene Elliott, works. Both The Laramie Projects are exercises in minimalism in the spirit of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. This time, the story moves beyond Shepard and his killers to explore the art of persuasion, bias confirmation, and the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about who we are. And how these stories we tell ourselves about who we are duke it out until there's only one story left standing.

Strong stuff, beautifully acted.

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